The first black player to sign for Chelsea in 1981, Paul Canoville faced horrific racist abuse on and off the pitch even from his own fans, despite helping the team secure promotion to the top flight in 1984.
After a persistent knee injury forced him into retirement aged 25, Paul hit a downward spiral and developed an addiction to drugs. Now, after two stints in rehab and beating cancer three times, Paul runs his own foundation, sharing his experiences with young people and teaching them how to build essential life skills.
His memoir Black and Blue details his incredible story and has won several awards and inspired a TV documentary in 2015. We caught up with Paul to find out more about how he’s using his own story to help support others.
Hi Paul, you recently took part in a ‘sleep out’ event with the Chelsea Supporters Trust, how did you get involved?
Before I signed for Chelsea, I was homeless for a while and nobody knew. I had nowhere to go, so I was secretly sleeping in a neighbour’s car, and getting up early in the morning so nobody would see me walking the streets.
Mark Meehan - who was running the ‘sleep out’ event - read my book and knew about my experiences with homelessness, so when he approached me, I said I’d definitely be involved. 60 of us took part and raised £25,000 for two homeless charities - Glass Door and The Stoll Foundation - which was a great achievement.
I remember how cold it was when I was sleeping in that car, but to experience it now was awful. I had a sleeping bag and layers of clothes, but it was still cold, so it really brought home how hard it is for homeless people. I’m glad I could raise some awareness - people are dying on our streets every day. Homelessness is a big concern.
Have attitudes around player wellbeing changed since you retired?
Somebody should’ve asked if I was ok when I had to retire at my peak, but I just learned how to be resilient on my own and picked myself up. I didn’t understand then that I was suffering with depression. Then I got involved with drugs and that started controlling me.
I think the work the wellbeing department at the PFA do is fantastic, and I know having their support at the time would’ve helped me. Nobody said anything to me at the time, and I was afraid to speak up because I thought I would become a target, but that was the old regime.
What was it like being the first black footballer at Chelsea?
I never expected I would get the abuse I did at a professional club. It was definitely hard to play when you’re being called the n-word and the w-word. It was a difficult three years for me. I always felt I had to play twice as well as my teammates to try and get accepted.
I used to go home every day and think about what else I could do to get them to start supporting me. It was dangerous at that time to be Black or Asian and wear a Chelsea shirt, and people didn’t even know I couldn’t go straight home after matches because I was scared of being caught by the National Front.
It’s really upsetting that 30 years on, there are still people who racially abuse players, but I know there is real work going in to properly eradicating racism in football. I supported the #Enough campaign earlier this year, but racism is a major issue, and still more needs to be done by The FA and UEFA.
Has the PFA Charity supported you with your foundation?
The PFA have been a great help, especially Head of Equalities, Simone Pound. She has supported projects my foundation runs, and it’s a great honour for me that I can share ideas with her.
The PFA have been supporting me with a charity event I run called Black and Blue Chelsea Legends, to help raise money for the foundation. I’m looking forward to working closely with the organisation on some new initiatives next year.
What’s next for the Paul Canoville Foundation?
We’re going to be continuing our work with young people. I will be talking with the Chelsea FC academy players, which I’m looking forward to. My mum always encouraged me to get an education, but I was too focused on football, so I always make sure I drive home how important it is for their futures.
Resilience is also crucial – I try to teach them not to give in when things feel hard. Drawing on my experiences, I’m able to talk to them about so many things I’ve overcome like depression, racism and homelessness. I set up my foundation because I love going into schools and colleges and sharing with the kids, and I’m really excited about all the things we’ve got lined up for 2020.